Following their encounter with the Elves in the woods of the Shire, Sam Gamgee is the one who gives one of The Lord of the Ring’s more precise statements of the moral and prudential influence of the Elves–the “Elvish effect”–on those who come into contact with Faërie. When Frodo asks Sam whether he “like[s] them still, now you have had a closer view,” Sam answers:
‘They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak,’ answered Sam slowly. ‘It don’t seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I expected – so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were.’
Frodo looked at Sam rather startled, half expecting to see some outward sign of the odd change that seemed to have come over him. It did not sound like the voice of the old Sam Gamgee that he thought he knew. But it looked like the old Sam Gamgee sitting there, except that his face was unusually thoughtful.
‘Do you feel any need to leave the Shire now – now that your wish to see them has come true already?’ he asked.
‘Yes, sir. I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want – I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.’
As I’m fond of pointing out, for Tolkien, the effect that the Elves have on men (or hobbits, the manikins) within a fairy story is a dramatized form of the effect that fairy stories themselves are to have on the men who read them. If so, then when Sam is describing the effect the Elves have had on him, Tolkien may be seen to give us some indication of the proper effect The Lord of the Rings is to have, or at least is intended to have, on its readers. When we read it, do we “feel differently,” and “see ahead, in a kind of way,” being reminded that we are “tak[ing] a very long road,” sometimes “into darkness,” but that we “can’t turn back.” Do we see that we “have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead,” not behind, and that we must “see it through,… if you understand me”?
The “Elvish effect” seems very relevant to themes in Tolkien like the *elevation* or *ennoblement* experienced by lower natures when they are in close spiritual contact with higher natures. This in turn seems to be related to lifespan.
The Valar have this effect on the Elves;
the Elves, on the Edain of Beleriand;
the Numenoreans, on Lesser Men in Middle-earth, before the Coming of the Shadow;
the Elves, on Bilbo and Frodo.
Treebeard, on Merry and Pippin.
Tolkien’s Great Myth, on his readers.
This “effect” begins in Eru, and is bestowed on the Ainur, why ? Maybe because “Love diffuses itself”; it spreads itself around, because it is of the nature of God’s Love to make the beloved happy, and, if there is no beloved to be made happy, to create one, so that the Divine Love can be responded to, by the creature, with a return of love, Tolkien could have found these ideas in Dante’s Paradiso. Where there is love, there is communion – such as that of the Noldor with the Valar, of Beren with Luthien, of the Numenoreans with the Elves and the Valar.
As far as I can see, the “duty and joy” of the Valar in particular was to mediate this Love to Arda, by enriching and shaping it. The same applies, in proportion to the measure of their being, to the Elves. The purpose for which the Numenoreans received their great gifts, was for themselves, so that they might share with other Men what they had received, They were to share what was not theirs by right, and were not to cling to it jealously. Feanor went wrong by such possessiveness, like Melkor before him, and so did they. Feanor’s great fault was I think impatience – he tried to gain for the Noldor, prematurely, a good that the Valar intended to be theirs in due course. All would have been made well, but he was not willing to wait.
The idea that nobler and more privileged beings were to serve and elevate lesser beings can be related to what beings were in their origin; for their origin shows the extent of their power for good, or for evil.
Your essays are a joy to read. They have don great deal to show how wonderful and profound Tolkien’s Great Myth is. Please keep them coming.
Thanks James, great thoughts.